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Against the Grain: Celebrities in Politics

By Jim Wittebols

Buffalo, NY – For the last year or so, we have seen an increasing presence of cultural celebrities in the political sphere. Last fall, cable television news outlets began to use celebrities as spokespeople for the anti-war movement which was organizing to prevent the debacle that now is Iraq. Some of them proved to be informed and able to take on conservative counterparts in debates over the war. Others proved far less articulate and seemed to be selected for news panels for that very reason-the anti-war movement was often dismissed by political pundits and using those who were not experts on the issue were easy foils for the pro-war media.

There were lots of expert and articulate voices among those understand the history of U.S. foreign policy which could have prodded the American public to think more critically about the role the U.S. plays in the world. But you don't get authentic spokespeople for the left such as Phyllis Bennis, Jim Hightower or Ed Herman--to name only a few-on these shows because they would have run circles around the right wing hacks who were clamoring that this war would be a cakewalk. Using celebrities to represent one side of a debate makes it easier to dismiss that perspective. And the heavy criticism of the Dixie Chicks and other artists and actors which came from conservative circles once again helped to smear war opponents as unpatriotic.

Fast forward to the political season and we see another round of cultural celebrity and politics. Shock talk show host Jerry Springer's well publicized consideration of a run for Senator in Ohio was hounded by right wing critics who feel his show somehow normalizes the pathetic lives of a relative few. It didn't matter that he actually had an earlier political career, right wing critics decried the immorality of his show.

But all that changed with the California recall. The rise of Arnold Schwarzenegger has once again exposed the hypocrisy of right wing criticism of celebrities who get involved politically. While Springer gets called for the violence that frequently occurs among his so-called guests, Schwarzenegger's starring roles in violent films don't seem to be any indicator of his own character.

As the revelations about his ongoing sexual harassment and assaults have finally been published in mainstream media outlets, his rallies now consist of radio personalities who decry the Los Angeles Times for daring to expose his adolescent sexuality. At one rally, Schwarzenegger asked his supporters if they read the Times. A resounding NO followed. Well, I could have told you that. These folks get their news from Entertainment Tonight and the Leno and Letterman monologues. With Schwarzenegger's election as governor, it is clear he has been elected by a sector of the citizenry which responds more to cheap one liners from his movies and not because they did their own reading and analysis of why California is in its current dire straits.

I have no objection to well-read and experienced cultural celebrities who get involved politically. But there is something wrong with a citizenry dumbed down by media coverage of politics which has reduced the myriad issues of the day to bumper sticker taunts. Until people are willing to take their roles as citizens seriously enough to become well informed on at least a few issues, we will continue to have elections that mock, rather than celebrate, the idea of democracy.